Two music documentaries and a spotlight on a significant part of the Civil Rights Movement are among the nonfiction works that have been selected by the Library of Congress for preservation this year. The annual announcement of twenty-five films added to the National Film Registry acknowledged that for 2020, the list includes a diverse group of filmmakers.
From the statement made by Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden:
“The National Film Registry is an important record of American history, culture, and creativity, captured through one of the great American art forms, our cinematic experience. With the inclusion of diverse filmmakers, we are not trying to set records but rather to set the record straight by spotlighting the astonishing contributions women and people of color have made to American cinema, despite facing often-overwhelming hurdles.”
The nonfiction titles added for 2020 include three directed by women. Three of the films are from filmmakers of color. And four of them focus on subjects representing persons of color. Find the six documentaries chosen by the Library of Congress below along with their explanation for their cultural significance. I’ve also noted where you can watch each one.
With Car and Camera Around the World (1929)
Here is the blurb from the Library of Congress on this travelogue compilation film from Aloha Wanderwell Baker:
Filmed from 1922 to 1929, ‘With Car and Camera Around the World’ documented the expeditions of Walter Wanderwell and Aloha Wanderwell Baker, the first woman to travel around the world by car. The couple, along with a crew of volunteers, crisscrossed dozens of countries in a caravan of Ford Model Ts, filming people, cultures, and historical landmarks on 35mm film. Learning the filmmaking craft along the way, Aloha served as camera assistant, cinematographer, editor, actress, screenwriter, interpreter, driver, negotiator, and, at times, director. The Academy has preserved both edited and unedited shots from ‘With Car and Camera Around the World’ in addition to a few sequences and outtakes from other films, including ‘The Last of the Bororos’ (1931), ‘The River of Death'(1934) and ‘To See the World by Car’ (1937). More information is available at: https://www.oscars.org/film-archive/collections/aloha-wanderwell-film-collection
As far as I know, there’s currently no easy way to view With Car and Camera Around the World.
Mel Stuart‘s concert film Wattstax is one of our favorite Los Angeles documentaries. Per Dan Schindel’s list: “Interviews with the residents of Watts and various attendees of the concert…speak to a variety of issues affecting African Americans, many of which are still sadly relevant. Richard Pryor’s joke about police shooting black men needs no updating. But this is a film about solidarity and cultural celebration, and it’s one of the best (but underseen) concert films ever made.”
Here is the Library of Congress blurb for the film’s entry into the National Film Registry:
Often called the ‘Black Woodstock,’ this documentary from Memphis’ Stax Records stands as far more than simply a great concert film. ‘Wattstax’ chronicles the renowned 1972 LA Memorial Coliseum concert and celebrates the Los Angeles’ black community’s rebirth after the tragedy of the Watts riots a few years earlier. Richard Pryor’s knowing monologues frame and serve as a Shakespearean musing on race relations and Black American life, alongside the incisive comments from people on the Watts streets. ‘Wattstax’ also features dazzling music highlights from artists such as Isaac Hayes and the Staple Singers, capped by Rufus Thomas dancing the Funky Chicken in hot pants.
Wattstax is currently available to rent digitally from various VOD outlets.
The Devil Never Sleeps (1994)
From Mexican filmmaker Lourdes Portillo, who is best known for the Oscar-nominated feature The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, this film investigates the death of her beloved uncle. Here’s the blurb presented by the Library of Congress:
Early one Sunday morning in July, the filmmaker receives a phone call informing her that her beloved tio (uncle) Oscar Ruiz Almeida has been found dead of a gunshot wound to the head in Chihuahua, Mexico. His widow has declared his death a suicide. Most of his family, however, cry murder and point to a number of possible suspects: his business partner, his ranch-hand, the widow herself. In ‘The Devil Never Sleeps,’ Lourdes Portillo returns to the land of her birth to find out exactly who her uncle was and to investigate the circumstances of his death. She explores ‘irrational’ as well as ‘logical’ explanations, searching for clues on both sides of the border and in the history of her family. Old tales of betrayal, passion, lust, and supernatural visitation emerge as we follow the filmmaker deep into the life of a community in the homeland of Pancho Villa. ‘The Devil Never Sleeps’ exposes the loves and hatreds of a Mexican family convulsed by the death of one of its members. The emotions that Portillo captures in her particular blend of traditional and experimental techniques bring out the nuances of Mexican social and family order. Poetic, tragic, humorous, and mythic, this film crosses the borders of personal values, cultural mores, and the discipline of filmmaking itself. It is a key film by a Latina filmmaker.
As far as I can tell, there is currently no easy way to watch The Devil Never Sleeps.
Buena Vista Social Club (1999)
Wim Wenders‘ Oscar-nominated documentary spotlights the titular group of Cuban musicians performing songs from pre-revolution Cuba, and it later spawned a lesser sequel. In our retrospective review, Landon Palmer notes the original’s increasing significance: “In the 18 years since its commercial US release, Buena Vista Social Club has transformed into a period piece all its own…Moreover, in the wake of Castro’s death and the United States’s lifting of its embargo, Buena Vista Social Club resonates almost like a diplomatic effort that helped set the stage for a post-revolutionary relationship to Cuba, a rare meeting between neighbors after decades of distance.”
And here’s what film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote on the film for the National Film Registry: “The best Wim Wenders documentary to date and an uncommonly self-effacing one, this 1999 concert movie about performance and lifestyle is comparable in some ways to ‘Latcho Drom,’ the great Gypsy documentary/musical. In 1996, musician Ry Cooder traveled to Havana to reunite some of the greatest stars of Cuban pop music from the Batista era (who were virtually forgotten after Castro came to power) with the aim of making a record, a highly successful venture that led to concerts in Amsterdam and New York. The players and their stories are as wonderful as the music, and the filmmaking is uncommonly sensitive and alert.”
Watch it now on HBO Max
Mauna Kea: Temple Under Siege (2006)
Here is the blurb from the Library of Congress:
Produced and directed by Puhipau and Joan Lander of Nā Maka o ka ʻĀina, this documentary about the dormant volcano on the Big Island of Hawai’i examines the development vs. ecological preservation battle between scientists who use the mountain summit as an astronomical observatory and Hawaiians who want the mountain preserved as a cultural landscape sacred to the Hawaiian people.
Mauna Kea: Temple Under Siege is available to stream on The Criterion Channel.
Freedom Riders (2010)
In this Black history documentary for PBS, Stanley Nelson presents the story of the Freedom Riders, civil rights activists who rode buses through the South in 1961 and ran into trouble with racist segregationists. Here’s the blurb presented in the National Film Registry announcement:
During 1961, more than 400 people from across the nation, black and white, women and men, old and young, challenged state-sanctioned segregation on buses and in bus terminals in the Deep South, segregation that continued after the Supreme Court had ruled the practice to be in violation of interstate commerce laws. Some 50 years later, ‘Freedom Riders,’ a two-hour PBS ‘American Experience’ documentary made by Stanley Nelson, charted their course in considerable depth as they faced savage retaliatory attacks and forced a reluctant federal government to back their cause. The riveting story is told without narration using archival film and stills and, most engagingly, through testimonies of the Freedom Riders themselves, journalists who followed their trail, federal, state, and local officials, white southerners, and chroniclers of the movement including Raymond Arsenault, whose book inspired the documentary. The film takes viewers through many complex twists and turns of the journey with extraordinary clarity and emotional force. The courage and conviction of the Freedom Riders, ordinary Americans willing to risk bodily harm and death to combat injustice nonviolently, will inspire later generations who watch Nelson’s eloquent film. Nearly 50 full interviews conducted for the film are now available in the American Archive of Public Broadcasting at https://americanarchive.org/special_collections/freedom-riders-interviews.
Freedom Riders is currently available to stream from Hoopla and Kanopy.